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Gale Elementary School Greenhouse Teaches Kids About 'Humanity'

ROGERS PARK — A pastor and cafe owner spends his free time on the third floor of Gale Elementary School's annex building — sowing seeds in a glass-encased greenhouse.

John Hoekwater first volunteered his time at the greenhouse eight years ago and has been growing flora — such as basil, watercress and pepper plants — in the greenhouse's planting beds and aquaponics system ever since.

"John has put in an untold amount of hours," said Anthony Boatman, a program manager with neighborhood nonprofit A Just Harvest.

Boatman and Hoekwater teach groups of young urban men and women how to grow food in an area on Chicago's far North Side once known as the "Juneway Jungle," for its low-income housing and gang activity.

"This is a way to teach accountability," said Boatman, a longtime Rogers Park resident and graduate of Sullivan High School.

He said he teaches kids at the greenhouse as a way to break through the noise of everyday city life.

"The real idea is that young people don't need grown people talking" at them, he said. "Young people like to do something — hands on."

At the school, which was threatened with closure until last week, science teacher William Swain says time in the greenhouse is built into his curriculum.

"During the day, these kids can be at each other's throats, but when they're in here, they're engaged," said Swain, whose classroom opens to the third-floor greenhouse. "If you can get them to respect a plant, you can get them to respect humanity."

Hoekwater said the greenhouse was built when Gale needed extra space and the annex building was seen as the solution, but "no one knew what to do with it" at first because of funding issues and a lack of expertise.

"My thing was to start this as an educational program," said Hoekwater, who runs the Common Cup cafe with his wife and leads the congregation at Many Peoples Church.

He said the greenhouse was in disarray when he found it, but over time he and others had built in growing beds and the aquaponics system, which cycles wastewater from tanks filled with goldfish to fertilize plants.

His church gave $3,000 to fund the work.

He and the volunteers grow peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and "a lot of flowers" that are sold at the Glenwood Sunday Market.

The city even paid them for flowers grown at the greenhouse to be planted along Howard Street, he said.

In the community surrounding Howard Street, the idea of growing food naturally caught on.

The Good News Community Church, Housing Opportunities for Women and Family Matters all have garden beds in the area.

"Now, the greenhouse is kind of this hub of activity that spreads out into the community," he said.

Vace Gurzakovic, 14, is an eighth-grader at Gale and helps to water plants at the greenhouse and bury seeds in rows of planters.

"The seeds are so dang tiny," she said of her least-favorite thing to do around the greenhouse.

She enjoys most "getting to play with dirt," because it reminds her of when she was younger and helped her grandparents in their backyard garden.

Boatman said the students learn how to "build a future" at the greenhouse.

"The community gets to see these kids," he said. "Suddenly, they become the beacon of hope for the whole Rogers Park community."